- Two Ways of Doing Chinese Philosophy—A Report on the Conference “Virtue: East and West” (Hong Kong, 2008)
Is bringing together two different traditions, East and West, a meaningful way of doing philosophy? If so, is focusing on a similar topic, to which each is expected to bring ample resources, a plausible way of bringing East and West together? Then, what might be such a topic? Attempting to answer these questions seemed to be one of the initial motives for the international conference “Virtue: East and West,” organized by the Philosophy Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and held on May 20–22, 2008. Lively discussions over these three days afforded us the opportunity to ask these questions of ourselves. More importantly, each speaker looked at the questions from a different perspective, which allowed us to consider a diversity of different methodological approaches.
In fact, during the conference, two quite contrasting styles of handling Chinese philosophical materials were observed. And it seemed that the two styles somewhat reflected two distinctive ways of doing Chinese philosophy in the contemporary field. For this reason, it should be interesting to introduce the conference mainly by focusing on the difference observed, though an introduction with this focus would unfortunately pass over some papers that engaged interests in different ways.
To begin with, a group of philosophers confronted tasks bearing a double burden. They struggled to bring two philosophical traditions together in such a way as to interpret one tradition by drawing upon the resources offered by the other. They were primarily concerned with the interpretation of traditional Chinese thought, but their works diverged with respect to how they made use of various Western resources as analytical tools. For instance, Michael Slote submitted that the Confucian tradition was more comparable to the sentimentalist tradition of David Hume than to Aristotelian ethics. To show this, he singled out what he thought could be captured by the Humean conception of empathy in the Confucian tradition. Joseph Chan challenged a widely accepted understanding of Confucian politics that sees it as simply the extension of family ethics. He discerned separable claims underlying this purported common understanding and attempted to reconstruct a Confucian politics for modern times by highlighting what could be captured, among the claims, in terms of Western political theories, such as perfectionism and theories of democracy. The approaches of Slote and Chan were similar in the sense that they each adopted certain Western theoretical concepts or frameworks in attempting to understand Chinese thought. [End Page 136]
On the other hand, Jiyuan Yu made use of Western categories, such as metaphysics and ethics, as his main analytical tools and observed that there was something missing in early Confucian thought, namely something like the Platonic expansion of Socratic ethics to metaphysics. Philip J. Ivanhoe’s methodological concern was that we should bring two different traditions together by focusing on certain issues that were actually addressed or could potentially be addressed by the two. In this regard, Ivanhoe highlighted an aspect of Confucian thought in order to turn it to his advantage in addressing an issue initially arising from Western philosophical discussions. He focused on the Confucian model of taking virtue education within the family and expanding it to the larger social world, and contrasted this model with the Western liberal model, which makes a distinction between the familial and public realms. He contended, then, that the Confucian model could provide us with a relatively better position for tackling the contemporary issue of justice within the family.
Another group of philosophers was in contrast to the preceding group with regard to their dealing with Chinese philosophical materials. Kim-Chong Chong’s paper, which was singled out as a good example of this group, demonstrated the thickness of philosophical discussions that emerge directly from the original texts themselves. Chong attempted to explore various connotations of the term zhen (truthfulness) and their philosophical implications without relying on any concepts or frameworks specific to Western philosophy. This spirit, exemplified by Chong, was in fact shared by others in different ways. Among them was Jeffrey Riegel, who contended that a phrase in the Lunyu—xian xian yi se—should be...